"It's Story Time, Ladies" Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories Edith Spencer, Dan Seymour
How do you sell shortening? How does an ad agency, in this case Ruthrauff & Ryan, convince the housewife that their client's gooey white substance is superior to their competitor's gooey white substance?
As the advertising maxim goes: You don't sell the steak; you sell the sizzle!
In the case of Spry Shortening, the 'sizzle' was kindly old Aunt Jenny, the idealized grandmotherly mistress of the kitchen whose baked goods were the talk of the town.
Because they were made with Spry, Jenny's desserts were “so light and digestible a child can eat ‘em”. While never stating outright that a cake or pie made with Crisco could harm your child, the implication was that Spry, "tops in purity and blandness", was easier on the digestive system. This proved to be an effective marketing technique; at its peak, Spry Shortening had a market share 75% that of brand leader Crisco.
Of course, the competition was not about to take Spry's success lying down. Crisco's parent company, Proctor & Gamble, used their sponsorship of the Vic and Sade program to affirm that foods fried in their shortening were safe for all: "Why you can even give 'em to the youngsters."
Throughout the 1950s Lever Brothers began to wind down their Spry advertising, and as of 2017, Spry Shortening is still widely available in Cyprus. (Another advertising maxim: Doing business without advertising is like winking in the dark. You know what you're doing, but no one else does.)
The creation of Aunt Jenny as spokeswoman for Spry was a stroke of advertising genius. In contrast to most series, which were first created and then auditioned to sponsors, both the character of Aunt Jenny and her Real Life Stories program were created specifically for Spry Shortening. For nearly two decades, this would prove to be one of the best matches of sponsor and character in radio.
Jenny was an observer, never the subject of one of her stories, and as such we never saw any 'dark side' to our hostess. Instead, she remained a pleasant companion with whom we could relax and listen to the goings-on in Littleton, all the while enjoying her homespun wisdom and her home-baked treats. As both a trusted friend and an expert on baking and frying, if Spry shortening was good enough for dear old Aunt Jenny, then it was good enough for millions of American housewives.
Compare this symbiotic series/sponsor relationship to a program like John's Other Wife: "I'm pregnant and filled with worry, the employees of our business have rioted, my husband John is delirious and bed-ridden, and foreign decorator Marina Marinoff has romantic feelings for John that may be reciprocal. That's why my favorite laundry soap is..."
Aunt Jenny was not only the lead character of the radio program, but was soon featured in Spry's print advertising, magazine adaptations of her 'real-life' stories, and even a series of cookbooks. (Several of Jenny's magazine stories and print ads, as well as one of her cookbooks, can be downloaded on this page).
Aunt Jenny may have ventured into television as well. The April 1946 issue of Radio Mirror carried a picture of Jenny in a television studio's kitchen, with the caption "Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories break into television, catching Aunt Jenny in her familiar kitchen in an experimental CBS television broadcast." It is unclear if Aunt Jenny was ever broadcast as a regular television series.
Front cover of one of Aunt Jenny's Spry cookbooks (A larger version of the cover is available behind the JPEG link on this page.) Eagle-eyed art history students may note that this is a 'Droste' image, in that the full picture is reproduced within the picture (on the cover of the cookbook in Calvin's hand), theoretically ad infinitum.
Of course, housewives didn't tune in to hear the plugs for Spry; they came for the stories. Aunt Jenny's stories differed from the usual soap opera formula, in that they were individual episodic tales (known as 'strip shows', after comic strips) that concentrated on a single story-line.
Most soaps of the era utilized a continuous thread of parallel plots, as evidenced by John's Other Wife's announcer's lengthy recapping of the story so far. This ensured that there was never a convenient exit point for the listener; when one story-line is resolved, there are still many other troubles brewing to keep the audience rivetted.
By contrast, the writers of Aunt Jenny were free to completely resolve the problems of the story, resulting in a happy ending that offers the characters, and vicariously the listeners, hope for a better future and a fulfilling life. This positive approach dovetailed nicely with the image that Spry wished to project: Just as Aunt Jenny provided a satisfactory conclusion to her real-life stories, so too would Spry provide a satisfactory conclusion to all your baking and frying.
The writing of soap operas is often disparaged and dismissed as being trite and formulaic, so we have a challenge for you. After listening to the first episode of Aunt Jenny, 'Molly Still Loves Bill Crawford', it's up to you to decide how the story concludes. This episode was the second-last installment of the story (the finale is lost), so you have roughly twelve minutes to resolve the issue of Molly being in love with a man who is not her husband, and who is soon to return to Littleton.
We will likely never hear the conclusion of this story, but some possible resolutions would be:
Bill Crawford returns to Littleton with his new bride, a native of the South American village where he has been for the last year.
Upon being reunited with Bill Crawford, Molly realizes that she did indeed 'love a ghost', not a man. Seeing him in the flesh makes her realize that what she took to be love that she still carried for Bill was in fact a manifestation of her doubts regarding her marriage to Chris. Molly and Chris take that vacation in the mountains, where they reaffirm their love for one another, and then live happily ever after in Littleton.
Molly dumps her husband and runs away with Bill Crawford.
Note 1: One reliable source claims that as many as eleven episodes of Aunt Jenny may still exist, all of them from the Edith Spencer era. One of the episodes listed is from June 7, 1944, the day after the second show in the player. A brief précis of that episode indicates that Jim Abbott and Claire Rogers go through with their wedding, and may even fall in love.
Note 2: The May 6, 1946 Aunt Jenny episode sometimes carries the name 'Marriage Of Convenience', but that title bears no relationship to the plot of the show. It is possible that this was a title given to the June 6, 1944 episode, then erroneously applied to the later episode.
Very little information is available on Edith Spencer; this may have been by design. Since she wasn't known from any other series, and never seemed to appear out of character, Spencer was not seen as 'the woman who plays Aunt Jenny', but as Aunt Jenny herself. With Spry Shortening so closely linked to the character, the use of an unknown actress such as Spencer would avoid any potential negative associations with Aunt Jenny's portrayer that could affect the image of their product.
One could assume that Spencer was well-compensated for working exclusively with Spry, and appearing exclusively as Aunt Jenny. One clue to the level of compensation may come from 'Tune In Tomorrow' by Mary Jane Higby, star of 'When A Girl Marries' from 1939 to 1957. Newly arrived in New York and seeking work in soaps, Higby spotted Edith Spencer at the CBS cafeteria, decked out in mink from head to ankle. "Come Hell or high water," wrote Higby, "I intended to join that furry line-up at the lunch counter!"
When Spencer left the series in the early 1950s due to illness, the role was taken over by Agnes Young, who had appeared on radio steadily since the early 1940s, particularly on The Cavalcade Of America and Theatre Guild On The Air. Even during her turn as Aunt Jenny, Young continued to appear on such shows as I Love A Mystery, Best Plays, and more. By that time the character of Aunt Jenny was so firmly established that, within the context of the show, even a recognizable actress like Young would not be thought of as anyone but Jenny herself.
Information on when Young replaced Edith Spencer is sketchy at best, but a brief 'Whatever Happened To...' article in the August 1952 edition of Radio-TV Mirror would seem to place the transition as late 1950 or early 1951: "Edith Spencer, who was the original Aunt Jenny on the daytime show of the same name? Miss Spencer played the role for many years until she was forced to give it up due to a serious illness. Unfortunately, she has not been able to do any radio work since Agnes Young took over the Aunt Jenny role about a year and a half ago."
Sadly, three months later, the same magazine had this to report in their November 1952 edition: "Long-time listeners of the Aunt Jenny program will be saddened to learn of the passing of Edith Spencer. Edith originated the role many years ago and played it continually until she was forced to give up radio work entirely about two years ago. At that time she began to lose her sight, and was totally blind when she died from a tragic illness."
Aunt Jenny would also find success in other countries, with other actresses playing the role. In Australia from 1943 to 1961, Aunt Jenny was played by radio veteran Ethel Lang, and was sponsored by Velvet Soap. Lang also played Mrs. Lawson in The Lawsons and Meg MacArthur in Blue Hills, as well as many one-time roles including Shakespeare's Portia (of The Merchant of Venice) and Lady Macbeth.
There was a Canadian version of Aunt Jenny as well, known as 'Aunt Lucy', in the program Lucy Linton's Stories From Life. We were unable to locate the name of the actress who played Lucy, but we do know that announcer Cy Strange played the boy next door, 'Sunny' Rogers (the show was sponsored by Sunlight Soap), to whom Aunt Lucy would relate her stories. As Mr. Strange remembered his participation in the show: "It was simple-minded, but we sold Sunlight soap like you wouldn't believe." No episodes of the Canadian version are known to have survived.
Aunt Jenny: Edith Spencer (U.S.) and Ethel Lang (Australia)
The Extra Files:
Included is a snippet of the Australian version of Aunt Jenny, which ran for eighteen years, from 1943 until 1961. This version starred Ethel Lang with John Hudson playing her nephew Jimmy, and was sponsored by Velvet Soap. The episode sampled here relates the story of Widow Farrell and Iron Man McLowan.
Bob & Ray would do their own parody of Aunt Jenny named 'Aunt Penny's True To Life Stories' (sometimes known as 'Aunt Penny's Sunlit Kitchen'), brought to you by Chicken Fat, and funnier still when matched with an episode or three of the genuine article. Aunt Penny was played by Ray Goulding, with Bob Elliott taking on the role of her nephew Danny.
Crisco, the brand leader in the world of shortening, countered the success of Aunt Jenny with their sponsorship of the well-respected program Vic and Sade. This slightly surreal daytime 'show about nothing' was, among many listeners, a welcome relief from the suffering that permeated daytime radio in the '30s and '40s. Vic and Sade soon had a legion of loyal fans that included future radio legend Jean Shepherd, and even a judge who confided that he called a daily fifteen minute recess so that he could listen to the show in his chambers.
For a comparison between these upbeat shows and the 'tragedy' genre of soaps, we have included an episode of John's Other Wife, the 1936-1942 soap opera created by the prolific team of Frank and Anne Hummert. John's Other Wife would feature several overlapping plotlines that could last for weeks or even months, each rich in misery and heartbreak, as opposed to the closed-ended tales of Aunt Jenny, which could finish with an upbeat resolution at the end of the five-day story. The last appearance of John's Other Wife in radio listings was on July 31, 1942, but for decades it remained one of the most parodied of all radio soap operas.
Then as now, an over-the-top soaper like John's Other Wife was ripe for parody, and so we close our playlist with master of musical mayhem Spike Jones, and his take on the convoluted and improbably hopeless situations featured in the soaps of the day. None But The Lonely Heart was released in 1949, and features Spike and Helen Grayco on vocals, with a violin solo by Dick Gardner. The music that opens and closes None But The Lonely Heart is actually from Tchaikovsky's 1869 composition of the same name, but the middle section is pure Spike.
For more soap opera enjoyment, we recommend Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, another Frank and Anne Hummert production telling the tale of "a little Iowa girl who married one of America's most handsome actors, Larry Noble." This show is another treat for Bob & Ray fans, who will be familiar with their long-running parody 'Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife'. To visit a page with eighty-four episodes of Backstage Wife, click here.
For an extensive cross-section of OTR soaps, uploaded by soap opera superfan DEF GP, click here.
For more Vic and Sade, an excellent place to begin is DEF GP's three pages, for 1937-1939, 1940-1941, and 1942-1947. (DEF GP uploads much more than just soap operas, and their uploads are always good quality files, well organized.)
To hear Richard Lamparski's entertaining and informative interview with Adele Ronson and Elaine Kent, two stars of the original 'John's Other Wife', click here.
For more Bob & Ray, running the gamut from the 1940s to the 1980s, we recommend the 'Bob And Ray For The Truly Desperate' collection. These shows have long been collected and traded on reel-to-reel tapes, and are now being acquired, digitized, restored, and uploaded by the uniformed and courteous BARFTTD staff. To visit Bob And Ray For The Truly Desperate, click here.
The cookbook ‘Aunt Jenny’s Favorite Recipes’ is available behind the PDF link on this page. Because the pdf is a bit dark, we have also included a zip file of slightly brighter jpegs of the cookbook (the names of the jpegs correspond to the page numbers of the cookbook).
If you would prefer to read Aunt Jenny’s Favorite Recipes on line, click here.
Also included behind the ZIP link are magazine articles on Agnes Young (the second Aunt Jenny), several magazine adaptations of Aunt Jenny’s stories, and a selection of pictures relating to Aunt Jenny.
Note: We have adjusted the Aunt Jenny mp3 files to even out the volume between the episodes (the sound of the first mp3 is still a bit muddy, but improves slightly as the episode continues). For archival completeness, we have added a zip file containing the three original mp3 files.
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